A Survey of Hallucinogenic Cactus species
Text by RP Nelson
Dept. of Botany, University of Hawaii, Honolulu
When you think
of hallucinogenic cacti what do you think? Few people may actually know there
is such a thing as a psychoactive cactus that is used to cause hallucinations.
For those that know at least a bit about hallucinogens and psychoactive
substances or ethnobotany they will surely know of the small cacti known as
peyote. Originally it was restricted to a small range in southeastern
Depending on the knowledge of the person you ask, some may also know about another cactus that grows in South America that has been used for its psychoactive compounds. This species is of course the San Pedro Cactus. Yet, how many more can be named? Surely not all cactus species are hallucinogenic. If they were it would seem that there would be much more knowledge on the subject. In fact, of the maybe 1,500 species of cacti in the new world, only a few dozen have reportedly been used by Indians and only maybe 3 dozen have been found to contain psychoactive compounds. What are these species and how closely related are they? What are the uses of these plants and what compounds to they contain? What do these compounds do to the human psyche. It is my intention in this paper to give a brief review of the species of cacti that have psychoactive properties. Because a lot of research has concentrated on the uses and effects of peyote and San Pedro cactus, I will only briefly talk about their uses, and instead focus on the less known, but often equally potent cacti.
What is a cactus?
A cactus is any species that found in the family Cactaceae. This family contains nearly 1,500 plant species that range from Canada to southern South America. Except for a few species that are found in Africa and the surrounding islands (which are thought to be introduced), the family is completely a new world taxa. (Benson 1982).
While most people believe they can identify a cactus from a non-cactus, it is often difficult. Surprisingly, several evolutionarily unrelated species have evolved similar appearances to combat environmental conditions. In Africa and Asia, species of the large Euphobiaceae family can often be mistaken for a cactus. They have succulent stems (juicy), spines and a lack of leaves, yet they are not cacti. One easy way to differentiate a cactus, however, is to look for the presence of an areole. Areoles are basically complex buds scattered along the plant in which grow the spines. Other than areoles, the flowers must be analyzed in detail (Weniger 1984).
Ecological adaptations and geographical distribution
Cacti are typically residents of deserts or areas were water is scarce or practically non-existent for part of the time. The presence and dominance of these plants in these dry environments is due to their ability to solve the problem of a lack of water. Cacti, solve this problem by 1) being able to quickly absorb any water that does fall (by having an extensive root network), 2) holding absorbed water in the tissues (using special soft tissues in the core that permeate with water) and 3) conserving water losses (through a lack of leaves). These adaptations have allowed this family to diversify into several different forms and populate dry regions of the Americas (Weniger 1984).
Because of the way the earth rotates and the way the wind moves across it, cacti are generally restricted to certain areas. Hot, moisture laden air from the equator rises, cools and dumps rainfall in this tropical environment. After rising, cooling and drying this air sinks in areas north and south of the equator -- in the so–called horse latitudes. The air that falls is dry, causing little rainfall in these areas. Consequently, most of the cactus species are found in these two dry areas of North and South America (Benson 1982).
Uses by Humans
Humans have had a long history utilizing the cacti. It can be used for several purposes. In the dry parts of North America, particularly the southern US and Northern Mexico, it is invaluable as a food crop. Often it is the only article of food for about 2 months of the year (Benson 1982). One of the main food crops is the Opuntia cactus, better known as the prickly pear. These cacti are utilized in several ways. The fruits can be opened and eaten, revealing a type of watermelon/beet flavor (personal observation), or the entire stem can be sliced into strips and cooked up, similar to cooking green beans (Benson 1982).
In addition to utilizing Prickly Pear Cacti for food, it is often utilized as a food for livestock or other ranging animals. This is because the cacti provide a good deal of water and nutrients (Benson 1982). In fact, cacti were once thought to have great commercial potential as an easily grown, food for cattle. Even a spineless variety was engineered to allow for easier consumption of the cacti (Benson 1982).
popular use of cacti is as an emergency source of water. The barrel cacti in
the genus Ferocactus and Echinocactus have been used to save stranded desert
voyagers by providing a useful source of water. One instance documents a
stranded Marine pilot during a training exercise who was saved by drinking the
water. Another instance is documented from a stranded Geologist on a ledge in
the Grand Canyon (Benson 1982).
Besides, nutritional sources for humans and animals, cacti have been used for insight into the spiritual realm of the gods. In the southern Rocky Mountains, Indians used to beat themselves with stems of chollas as part of a right of passage ceremony for young warriors (Benson 1982). This action, of course, involves the cacti entirely because of its physical appearance. Other uses are through the actual ingestion of cacti because these plants contain alkaloids that have psychoactive compounds. One example of this is the widespread use of peyote (Lophophora williamsii). This plant has been used in Mexico and emphasizes agriculture, hunting, curing and divination. Here the participants undergo pilgrimages to sights where they grow and follow this with singing, dancing and praying. In the plains of the US, the plant is incorporated into the Christian Native American Church. Some even believe Christ gave them this plant to better allow them to see God (Anderson 1996). Yet L. williamsii is not the only hallucinogenic cacti. There are many more.
What makes something hallucinogenic?
The fact is that some species of cacti are hallucinogenic and some are not. What is the cause of this psychoactive ability in these species? Simply the presence of alkaloids in the plant does not necessarily mean that it is hallucinogenic. Granted, there are some types of alkaloids that provide psychoactive effects. In the cacti this might be mescaline, which is found in Lophophora williamsii, Opuntia cylindrical (Prickly Pear), and the San Pedro Cactus (Trichocereus pachoni) (Ghansah 1993). Yet, very few of the other hallucinogenic cacti actually contain mescaline. Instead, they contain other compounds, including hordenine and N-methyltyramine. Often, while each individual alkaloid when isolated, may not produce an effect on the individual, the effect of all alkaloids in any cacti together, produce a synergistic effect (Anderson 1996). The cacti and their alkaloids will reveal that there is a great diversity of species in not only the phenotypic physical appearance of the cacti, but also in their alkaloids, and the physiological response when consumed.
At the present time 42 species of cacti in 19 genera have been found to contain psychoactive compounds. The following describes each genus with psychoactive members, the species they contain and the psychoactive compounds that are present in each.
According to the classification by Anderson (1964) the genus Ariocarpus contains six species in two subgenera. All of them occur primarily in the Chihuahuan Desert from the Rio Grande to the Mexican Plateau (Benson 1982). This group’s uses are actually very interestingly related to the uses of Peyote (Lophophora williamsii). By far the most famous of these species is Ariocarpus fissuratus, which is often called sunami or peyote cimarron (Schultes, 1970). In regards to the uses of this plant, there seems to be some confusion in not only the Indians but in the recorders. This so called confusion is based on a few findings.
The first reports were from Lumholtz (1902), the Norwegian ethnographer who traveled to this region early in the century. His informers in the Tarahumara Indians told him that A. fissuratus was used in a similar way as peyote and is considered to be more powerful. Schultes (1970) likewise found that A. fissuratus is a common narcotic and asserted that it is stronger than true peyote. These stories, however, conflict with Gennet and Zingg (1935) who stated that this species was considered ineffective by the Tarahumara. Although, they noted that the Indians still hold it sacred, for it was communicated to them that those who abuse it will die.
The confusion that arose in regards to the actual effect and usage of these species of Ariocarpus maybe confounded by their similarity to each other. For instance, Furst (1971) in a study on the Huichol Indians, reported that they know of a related species, Ariocarpus retusus. According to the account A. retusus is known as tsuwiri, or the ‘false peyote’. Tsuwiri reportedly causes undesirable psychological effects, ‘because it is capable of sorcery and deception.’ Whether or not the psychological effect truly is bad or not is unclear, because later is states that true Huichols do not eat this plant. Only the deceived and evil Huichols will consume the plant. Thus, it implies that those that eat the plant are already to some degree psychologically “impure.” In any case, the chemistry of the plant can be analyzed to determine the active ingredients. It contains hordenine, N-methyltryamine in fairly small amounts (about 0.02 percent) and traces of N-methyl-3,4-dimethoxy-B-phenethylamine, and N-methyl-4-B- phenethylamine. Aside from these alkaloids, it also contains a flavone called retusin (3,3',4',7-tetramethoxy-5-hydroxyflavone). However, some have claimed that these constituents seem in too small of doses to ever cause a psychological effect (Gottlieb 1997). Some controlled scientific studies are clearly needed to unravel this mystery.
In addition to A. retusus and A. fissuratus there are 3 others reportedly used: these include A. kotschoubeyanus and A. trigonus, both which contain the same alkaloids as A. fissuratus (mostly hordenine, less N-methyl- tyramine and some N-methyl-3,4-dimethoxy-B-phenethylamine), and A. agavoides which must have a very minute amount of psychoactive alkaloids, for it is consumed as a sweet by locals in some areas of Mexico such as Magueyitio (Gotlieb 1997).
Astrophytum is a small genus that was carved out of the much larger genus Cereus (Benson 1982). It contains a few species that are locally referred to in Mexico as “Peyotillo”. Few studies, however, have examined this plant species, even though it does show up positive on alkaloid tests and was reported by Schultes (1947), to be “either narcotic or medicinal.” Species mentioned as “Peyotillo” are Astrophytum capricorne, A. asterias, and A. myriostigma.
Aztekium is a genus found solely in Mexico (Benson 1982). In Mexico, Aztekium ritterii it is called “Peyotillo.” Yet, even though it contains N-methyltyramine, Hordenine, Anhalidine, Mescaline, N,N-3,4dimethoxy PHA, Pellotine, 3-methoxytyramine, there have been no ethnobotanical reports that state that it has ever been used by native Indians (Schultes 1937).
Carnegiea is a genus that has been split off of the large Cereus genus and contains only one cactus species, Carnegiea gigantea, the saguaro (sa-war-o) (Benson 1982). The saguaro or giant cactus is one of the characteristic plants of
This genus, which means “top flower” contains around 40 species, two-thirds of which occur only in Mexico (Benson 1982). One species that occurs in northern Mexico, Coryphantha compacta, is said to be used as an important medicinal plant by the shamans of the Tarahumara. They refer to it as another “hikuri” or “peyote”, and is consequently feared (Bye 1979). Several Coryphantha species have been found to contain psychoactive alkaloids, notably hordenine, calipamine, and macromerine (Schultes et al 1998).
This genus which comes from the words echinos, meaning “spiney” and cereus, meaning “wax candle”, makes up a large geneus of cacti which is both rich in both diversity and abundance (Weniger 1984). There are 20 to 30 species from
This genus is named from the Greek words meaning, “on,” “nipple,” and “flower.” There are only two species in the genus and both are primarily found in Northern Mexico and some small areas in southern
Lophophora is the genus of the cacti species most often associated with the name ‘peyote’. This genus contains only two species, Lophophora williamsii and L. diffusa. L. diffusa is the less common and less used species. It does however contain several alkaloids (Hordenine, Pellotine, Anhalinine, Anhalonidine, Isopellotine, N-methylmescaline, Mescaline, O-methylpellotine). The most active alkaloid is mescaline, which is only present in small amounts (Bruhn and Bruhn 1973).
The other species, L. williamsii, has a much higher mescaline content and a much more widespread usage. It has been used in religious ceremonies dating back to pre-Columbian times. It was used by the Aztecs and Mexican Indians for religious purposes whereby it was considered either a god or a prophet of a god (Anderson 1996). During the nineteenth century this peyote and its ceremonial usage was introduced into the United states and spread all the way north into southern Canada. The plant has been incorporated into the Native American Church as a form of Christianity and peyotism Anderson 1996).
The incorporation of the peyote with Christianity is an interesting development. It incorporates traditional Indian rituals and classical Christianity. For instance, some tribes actually believe that Jesus Christ gave them peyote so that they could better see God and understand how to live. Often they take the peyote as a sacrament during the Lords Supper (Anderson 1996).
uses of peyote are widespread today. It is estimated that peyotism contains
250,000 followers which use the cacti in their beliefs (Anderson 1996). Peyote,
however, is not a common cacti and is restricted to a small native range in
The genus Mammillaria is a fairly large cacti genus with perhaps 100 species occurring from California to southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, New Mexico, Mexico, Texas and a few in the Caribbean (Benson 1982). Some texts separate some members of this genus into a separate genus called Dolichothele, but for the purposes of this review all will be lumped together.
Some of the most important ‘false peyotes’ of the Tarahamara Indians belong in this genus (Schultes1998). While several may contain alkaloids that have not been analyzed, there are at least seven that are known to contain psychoactive compounds. These include Mammilaria craigii, M grahmii, M. heyderii, M. longimamma, M. pectinifera, M. senilis.
One of the native cacti, M. craigii, has a long history of use in Mexico and is known from the Tarahumara as “wichuri” or “witculiki” (Bennet and Zingg 1935). Bruhn and Bruhn (1973) pointed out that this name was very peculiar as they discovered that the native term for crazy was, “wichuwa-ka.” The similarity in names is obvious and surely raised the question of how it was used. The plant is first roasted and the spines removed. Then the center is squeezed out, often into the ear. Ingestion of the plant by local shamans allowed them to ‘see’ into a person and find the demons that plagued any human (Bennet and Zingg 1935). The active compounds in this plant have been identified as N-methyl-3,4-dimethoxyphenethyl-amine (Bruhn and Bruhn 1973).
Another plant, M. grahamii, found in the region, is differentiated from M. craigii by the reddish central spines and the reddish vascular tissue in the plant stem (Bye 1979). It is known as “peyote” or by the Tarahumaras as “hikuri”. Apparently this plant was used in ceremonies where both the shaman and the participants would take the plant. It would allow them to “travel” with spectacular colors. Yet, like many of the “hikuri” species, if improperly used the Tarahumara’s report that it can cause one to go crazy (Bye 1979).
This genus is often grouped under the much larger (>1,000 sp) genus, Cereus. A few members of Neoraimondia are proposed to carry hallucinogenic compounds even though only one species has been analyzed (Neoraimondia arequipensis contains 3,5-Dimethoxy-4-hydroxyphenethylamine and 3,4-Dimethoxyphenethylamine.) However, the only species to have been reportedly used is N. macrostibas which is mixed in a hallucinogenic beverage called “cimora” with Trichocereus pachanoi (Gottleib 1977).
The genus Obregonia is related to the genus Ariocarpus, which contains species that have been identified as “hikuri” or “peyote” species. While it can be distinguished from Ariocarpus and no known ethnobotanical study has shown that it is used, it is now known as a ‘peyote’ species because of chemical studies that have shown it contains several important alkaloids (Bruhn and Bruhn 1973). These alkaloids include Hordenine, Tyramine, and N-methyltyramine. It has even been shown that extracts from this cactus have some antibiotic activity (Ott 1993).
Pachycereus is yet another genus that has been split off of the large Cereus genus. In western Mexico, the Tarahumara Indians use one species, Pachycereus pectin-aboriginum, in several ways. It has been used to produce visions that give similar effects to that of peyote. In these cases dizziness and visions occur. It is prepared by ingestion of a drink called “chawe” or “wichowaka” which is also the local name of the plant (Bye 1979). At first glance these cacti may seem to resemble the large saguaro cactus. Often the two are placed in the same large genus Cereus. Yet, this species IS used by the natives. This may be an artifact of the location of the plant and presence of natives still living in the area. As far as alkaloids, a few studies identified important compounds. The first study by Spath (1937) identified carnegine and later Agurell et al. (1971) identified 3-hydroxy-4-methoxyphenethylamine.
Pelecyphora is a well known cacti species related to the hallucinogenic Coryphantha species but is restricted to Mexico (Benson 1982). There are two species with hallucinogenic properties, those being Pelecyphora aselliformis, and P. pseudopectinata. P. pseudopectinata is sometimes used by natives of Tamualipas and considered a peyote species there (Bruhn and Bruhn 1973). It contains only hordenine.
The other species, P. aselliformis, which, because of its distant relationship to the former, may be placed in a new genus. It has been reported to be commonly sold in markets of San Luis Potosi (Bruhn and Bruhn 1973), and contains a plethora of alkaloid compounds (Anhalidine, Hordenine, Tyramine, N-methyltyramine, Phenethylamine, N-methylphenethylamine, 4-methoxyphenethylamine, N-methyl-4-methoxyphenethylamine, 3,4-Dimethoxyphenethylamine, N-methyl-3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, Mescaline, N-methylmescaline, Pellotine, N,N-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-4,5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, 3-dimethyltrichocereine)(Ott 1993).
This genus contains one species, Solisia pectinata that is hallucinogenic. It may only be classified as “peyotillo” because of a misidentification with Pelecyphora (Brahn and Brahn 1973). This species contains N-methyltyramine and Hordenine (Ott 1993). It is known in Mexico as “Cochinito” and often scientifically as Mammilaria pectiifera (Bruhn and Bruhn 1973).
Trichocereus, a genus split from the large Cereus genus, contains numerous species that occur in South America (Benson 1982). At least six species are known to contain psychoactive compounds including Trichocereus macrogonus, T. pachanoi, T. peruvianus, T. werdemannianus, and T. validus. The most well known is the San Pedro cactus, (T. pachanoi). It is valued for its mescaline (Schultes et al. 1998).
The genus Turbinicarpus is sometimes refered to as Strombocactus or Pediocactus and often found in the deserts of Mexico (Benson 1982). It is rarely talked about in the literature although two species haven been mentioned by Anderson (1996) as being “peyotillos” (Turbinicarpus pseudomacrochele and T. pseudopectinatus). Few studies, however have been done on these species. T. pseudomacrochele at least contains hordenine (Ott 1993).
Relationships between hallucinogenic species.
After analyzing the taxonomic classification of the many cacti that have been reported to be used as a hallucinogen or have been shown to contain psychoactive alkaloids, common relationships can be studied. The obvious question is, “are all species that are hallucinogenic related somehow?” In other words, are species all descended from a common ancestor that somehow, synthesized a specific compound and thus gave it to all of its progeny? This question is difficult to answer, yet, is very interesting. Benson (1982) shows a diagram depicting the relationship of each cacti genus to others (see below). It also shows the relative number of species in each. I have highlighted those genera that actually contain a few psychoactive drug plants. What is interesting is that these species are spread out around a lot of the chart, with a few species here and there. Some family, as might be expected, contain a majority of species with psychoactive substances. Another question might be, “how did certain alkaloids such as mescaline evolve?” Did they evolve once and were then subsequently lost? Or, did the compound evolve several different times in many cacti? I imagine that a detailed study of a large number of cacti in every genus could help resolve these questions.
We see that the family Cactaceae is a complex, rich family that is presently very important to man. Its uses as hallucinogenic plants should never be overlooked. This is because these compounds have not only been invaluable in the past but also today. This ranges from remembering them when studying the culture of the Indians that live in the dry areas of both North and South America to contemplating their potential pharmaceutical uses.
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My goal in writting this short piece and publicizing my research was in a hope that it could be used bas a starting point for anyone doing resaerch on Hallucinogenic cacti. I hope it helps.
Written June 2007
Text by Rob Nelson